Object Lessons’ ‘Email’ May  Already Be Obsolete – That May Be the Point

Before there were dashed-off emails, there were dashed-off postcards. Randy Malamud laments the loss of a romanticized notion of letter writing that few actually practiced in his installment of Bloomsbury's Object Lessons, Email.

Email (Object Lessons)
Randy Malamud
Sep 2019

As we stumble towards the close of the 21st century’s second decade, generational benchmarks blur between those who remember the pre-digital era and those who can imagine what life might have been like B.I. (Before Internet). Written means of communication for those of us who can remember as children seeing the grainy image of the Apollo 11 moon landing on television, came in the form of handwritten letters and bought-off-the-shelf cards wherein we scribbled a note for holidays and birthdays.

Composing love letters were literally sensual experiences; the feel of the paper in our hands, the blue ink that smudged our fingers. There are people among us who carried on epistolary traditions centuries old, yet thought it thoroughly modern. Such correspondence took some time and effort that is virtually unknown, anymore, to even letter writers of yore.

Perhaps this romantic notion of what letter writing was like is mere sentiment. Was handwriting a letter really any better than composing an email on a keyboard? Randy Malamud’s email, another addition to Bloomsbury’s consistently interesting Object Lessons series (from editors Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg), appears to be a romantic, in this regard. His work fulfills the series’ mission to expose “…the hidden lives of ordinary things”, but ordinary correspondence is rather extraordinary these days. Malamud presents his mission statement clearly and succinctly:

“I will examine how the discourse of email both extends and disrupts established traditions of letters, writing, rhetoric, and social communication.”

Like a romantic, Malamud misses the tradition of letters. He argues that the way we write today is just words “…liberated from the albatross of paper…” No email created now or in the future, he believes, will ever match the eloquence and urgency of something like Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Indeed, Malamud casts a wide net. He walks us through epistolaries from notables such as Emile Zola, Abraham Lincoln, the “purloined letter” of Edgar Allan Poe, and the erotic potential of Fanny Hill — he even draws upon missives from the old Penthouse Forum, of all things.

Did putting pen to paper evoke more contemplative thought, even if it was just a letter to your Grandma? One may feel inclined to go along with Malamud in his lament of the loss of thoughtful letter writing on the grand scale. Email, he says is”…paltry…disappointing…grammatically challenged…shape-shifting.” In handwritten letters, however, “Lives were lived, assignations were arranged, manifestoes were mailed, wars were waged.”

However, before there was email there were postcards: short notes with pictures on the other side. Postcards were dashed-off quickly and dropped in a nearby mailbox. This sort of common, quick communique was not so dissimilar to email.

Still, he is dissatisfied. Malamud argues that emails thrive from their “objectlessness”. They are “anti-contemplative”. He breaks down the essence of the terminology of the name itself: “E is for everybody. Email: mail plus e…E equals energy…E is in the throes of a millennial-long journey, a symbolic journey, a linguistic journey…” What is the meaning of the @ in our email addresses? Why are we “on” the internet and not “at” it? “”On bespeaks a figurative locationality,” he writes, and the contradictory nature of that “place” is confirmed when he continues “…we may feel anxiously free-floating and dislocated the more time we spend on email.”

There are basic discussions in this book, and standard suggestions for safety in the online medium (change your passwords every 90 days) but the core strengths of email rest in Malamud’s discussion of the abstract and theoretical. For example, the chapter “Unread” uncovers some interesting ideas. What do we think when we consider “…the provocative sublimity in the homograph…”? He argues that “unread” is why we log on, to see what we might have been missing. Don’t rhyme “read” with the present tense form of the verb but instead the word “heed”. It’s about direction and instruction.

What do we like about emails? The list seems endless: cost, convenience, being liberated from the obligation to speak on the telephone… Most important is that emails serve as a “…naturally searchable database.” Email as a verb is magic. It can’t be killed. No matter its quality of authorship, an email is also undeniably a piece of writing. We consider these notions of Malamud, and preparing to compose an email becomes, with this work in mind, potentially daunting.

But this book is not simply a “fuddy-duddy’s” lament of e-communication. Malamud’s “Subject” chapter suggests that the intersection of art with email can create interesting results. He considers the work of Elsa Philippe, a contemporary email artist, whose work looks at “…how new technologies affect human behavior and daily life rituals [in a] society addicted to new technologies.” Her work is an interesting example of the poetic nature inherent in some emails, cutting and pasting and repositioning lines to create something else. Malamud cites the existence of a Museum of Email, a “virtual museum” that exists (appropriately) on line as a way to infuse “…cyberspace with cultural education.” Like many great ideas that started online in the early days of the internet, however, it seems to have been abandoned.

One of the more interesting aspects of this “Subject” chapter involves Nigerian writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance (Hachette, 2009), where the subject is not necessarily emails (from Nigerian scam artists) but the “…imperialism and global inequity” brought to light by such schemes. He argues that fraudulent emails from scam artists “… are also a genre, a voice of resistance, even an art form… [an] unexpectedly nuanced subject about connections between Africa and the West in the networks of global cyberspace.” When email arrived, so too did songs about “email” from the Pet Shop Boys and others. So too films, like Nora Ephron’s 1998 romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail, that seemed to meet their expiration date shortly after they were released.

The more theoretical chapters in email prove more interesting. In “Inbox”, for example, Malamud reflects that examining email content makes us “…examine our lives: our desires and dreams, our families and careers, our status, our networks…” The safety and private security of personal correspondence was sacrosanct to the U.S. Post Office, but that was never a guarantee for any of us who created email accounts. “Email is behaviorally addictive…” Malamud writes. “The email box is an illusion, a metaphor, a construct…we check our inboxes obsessively…”, it can be overwhelming. This brings us to the concept of “Inbox Zero“, Merlin Mann’s movement to help create little “email corpses”; that is, stop and delete individual and organization emails that we no longer want.

Most all aspects of emails’ impact on our thinking and habits are considered here, including an interesting take on the “cc/bcc” fields. “You learn stuff when you study email,” Malamud writes. “There’s a history, a technological tradition…” Save everything. Don’t print emails. In “Out of Office”, Malamud notes that such a note (still used in email correspondence) indicates the antiquated nature of the communication process. We are really no longer able to use “out of office” as an excuse to not respond to emails. People will always be able to track us down.

The brief chapter “Opt Out” quotes such renegades as Julian Assange (“I don’t use email…”), film director Christopher Nolan (“…I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing”) and even Donald Trump, whom it is rumored doesn’t read anything lengthier than a tweet (“…if you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier…”)

Malamud demonstrates cheeky humor in the chapter on junk email. He returns to email as art in “Delivery Failure”, and here is where it the book is most compelling. We’re all familiar with the end result of an email delivery failure, and Malamud reflects on how the work appears on the screen:

“It is a primal screed, a babel of code and symbols, letters and numerals, words and near-words and abbreviations: nonrandom randomness.”

He adds this as a prelude to his own artistic interpretation of delivery failure:

“I have literally deconstructed this dead-letter email, and then reconstructed a living text: like a forensic pathologist reverse-engineering the document’s corpse to infer its vitality…”

It’s an interesting way to re-purpose the sometimes incomprehensible mess of a delivery failure, and the reader will probably find this section, along with various other subjective observations on the abstract, more compelling than the entirety of email. It’s an interesting book, effective in both its comprehensive content and concise structure.

Malamud ends with “Compose: How to write a good email”. The opening directive is not lost on the reader. Good communication should be seen as a composition, not just a mechanical construction of a formulaic written template. Compositions imply contemplation and pre-meditation, but like an elder, it harkens back to the art of handwriting letters:

“Be in a place with more plants, light, art, color…Be excited to tell somebody something…Take a few breaths and write…DON’T DEMAND A REPLY ASAP…DON’T SHOUT!!!… Nuances matter…Be honest. Be nice…Don’t write angry emails.”

He ends by quoting a line from New York Times writer Michael Merschel: “When you write, everything is literature…If it’s going to be read by someone, you owe it to them to make it worth their time.” Is email a manual for effective email communication? Is it a reflection on the implications of an email account inbox, subject lines, attachments, and opting out? A greater emphasis on the subjective and philosophical could have made this a more evergreen study on the form, function, history, and implications of email. Many don’t know life before this worldwide means of e-communication. Email can serve as a primer for a more in-depth exploration of the subject matter. It’s smart, relaxed, and provides an informed and funny look at email correspondence from former letter writers, and even people today who yeah, know about email, but prefer the quick, direct method of texting, instagramming…